10 cents. That’s how much it cost to change the behavior of hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area. When cities and counties imposed a 10 cent cost for a paper bag at the grocery store, overnight people began bringing their own bags. The change was across the board and it was immediate. In fact, a year ago, maybe one or two people in a line of six people would have their own grocery bags – and that was in Berkeley. Now, everyone brings his/her own bag and you are shamed if you have to buy a paper bag.
This is amazing considering that the paper shopping bag behavior is something that has been around for decades in this country. And yet, literally on a dime, the behavior stopped and was replaced by a behavior that makes sense economically, environmentally, and morally. If we can change this type of ingrained behavior in the masses, why can’t we change the behavior of lawyers in law firms? Why can’t we get law firms to change the way they reward attorneys, promote attorneys, and compensate attorneys? Why can’t we get law firms to increase diversity in their ranks because it is good for the economics of the firm, it is good for the culture, and it is the morally right thing to do?
Part of the answer to that question is history. Clearly, the roots of bias – conscious and unconscious – against women in law firms run deep and long. The way women are paid and perceived within their firms—these issues are laced with deep seated and unshakable prejudices and stereotypes. But what if we took a lesson from the grocery stores and put a price on not complying with what is right economically and morally? What if we began to measure some portion of compensation based on a showing of commitment to diversity – sponsoring a woman for a leadership position, identifying a woman as the successor to an institutional client relationship, giving women assignments and opportunities that showcase their abilities and potential, sharing origination credit with a new and upcoming female partner. Could it work? Maybe. We have seen law firms use monetary penalties to incent behaviors in the past – e.g., fines for failing to get time sheets in on time, decreases in draws for not getting bills out in a timely manner. And we know that with lawyers, money speaks. People actually argue over minor differences in compensation between them and their perceived peers.
So think about it. It only took the threat of a 10 cent cost to make people bring their own bags to the grocery store. What if we gave partners an extra $10,000 for increasing diversity in their firms by engaging in specific and impactful conduct specifically identified by firm management to advance diversity in the firm?
Could it work? I’d bet my cloth grocery bag on it.
By Patricia K. Gillette
First Published on Law 360
June 20, 2014